Letter from Berlin: The Twilight of the Gods

By Stan Persky | April 27, 2009

Berlin — Springtime Berlin has been plastered with election posters for the last month. But what a strange electoral contest: religion versus ethics!

Under balmy skies, and amid blossoming chestnut trees and lilac bushes, the German capital has been embroiled in a bitter debate about education, theology, and civic values that was only settled in a citywide referendum last Sunday, April 26.

It was strange to see every lamppost along every major thoroughfare festooned with competing signs urging such abstruse thoughts as “Vote yes, because free choice is my ethics,” or “Vote no, ethics lessons for everyone,” or the always suspicious invocation of “For the sake of our children.” Strangers were scratching their heads, in need of some background information about this debate in a city that features such philosophical traffic intersections as Kant Strasse and Leibniz Strasse, and is known as “the atheist capital of Europe,” given that less than forty per cent of the multicultural population claims any religious affiliation.

It all began three years ago in the wake of an “honour killing”  murder of a young Turkish woman by her brother because he objected to her Western lifestyle. That’s when the city government, a leftist coalition of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Left Party, headed by Mayor Klaus Wowereit, decided to introduce a required ethics course into the school curriculum for all students in the 7th grade and above.

Previously, the city’s schools offered voluntary religious instruction classes (known as “reli”), with Catholics, Muslims and Protestants taught separately. In other parts of Germany, religious studies are compulsory, but in Berlin they were optional and attendance was declining. Civic leaders decided that whether or not some students attended “reli,” all students should have a course that examined society’s shared social values in the name of integrating school age children from a variety of ethnic and faith backgrounds. The idea was that such teaching would discourage atrocities such as “honour killings” and buttress the values that hold a secular, especially multicultural, society together. Religion classes would still be available on a voluntary basis, although it was likely attendance would decline even further.

That’s what worried the people who coalesced into what became known as the “Pro-Reli” side. A coalition of Catholics,  Muslims, Jews, and some Protestants joined forces with conservative political parties and leaders (including German chancellor Angela Merkel, who heads the country’s Christian Democratic-SPD coalition government), and launched a successful, well-financed bid to hold a civic referendum on the subject.

The “Pro-Reli” side proposed that instead of required ethics classes, students (and their parents) should be “free to choose” between reli and ethics. Pro-Ethics supporters argued that casting the issue as one of “free choice” was deceptive, designed to mask an attempt to strengthen religious teaching in the schools. German novelist and jurist Bernhard Schlink, author of The Reader, whose film version was an Oscar-contender last year, bluntly called the “free choice” claims “a campaign of lies.” The Pro-Ethics opponents of the referendum, for their part, made the case that there should be “ethics lessons for everyone,” but that the schools would continue to support “both religion and ethics.” The large Turkish community of Berlin was divided between Pro-Reli Muslims and more secular minded members.

Given that Pro-Reli had seized the “free choice” high ground (who could be against free choice?); had enlisted the support of church officials, prominent politicians and even well-known entertainers (one popular TV game show host weighed in on behalf of faith-based education); and were outspending and out-postering their secular opponents by a margin of at least three to one, the Pro-Ethics side had cause to worry. Public opinion polling showed an almost even split on the referendum question.

But the campaign for a tolerant, secular society had two things going for it in addition to intellectuals like Schlink: the referendum requirements and the famous civic attitude that is described by some local wags as a combination of “BerlinDifference/BerlIndifference.” The hurdles for passing a referendum are high enough to discourage political frivolity. In addition to gathering a sizeable number of petition signatures to put a referendum on the ballot, the pro-side has to not only win the referendum but to secure the support of at least 25 per cent of the city’s eligible 2.45 million voters. So, a referendum can fail if it’s outright defeated or it can fail if it doesn’t get enough people out to support it. Held on a sunny 23 degree spring Sunday when much of the population was wandering in the woods, sailing on the lakes, or locked in traffic on the autobahns, the Pro-Reli side had not only to overcome the “Berlin difference” (non-religious, secular attitudes), but also “Berlin indifference.”

And the envelope, please: the “pro-religion” referendum was soundly defeated on both counts. Amen. It lost the straight-up vote, 51.5 per cent to 48.5 per cent. And it lost the referendum requirement battle, since only 29 per cent of voters participated, and Pro-Reli garnered a mere 14 per cent of eligible Berlin voters, far short of the required 25 per cent. Voters split largely along geographic lines: while the Pro-Reli side picked up most of its votes from the part of the city that was formerly West Berlin, voters in the former East Berlin went heavily against the referendum.

When it was over, disappointed Pro-Reli leaders consoled themselves by declaring that they had at least sparked an important public discussion. Mayor Wowereit, a fierce opponent of the referendum, was dismissive: “This shows that those in ‘Pro-Reli’ who were portraying this as a ‘freedom’ issue — as if the Russians were about to invade — are out of touch with the real situation in Berlin.” Given the current gloomy recession, high unemployment in the region, and a burgeoning civic debt, “Vovie,” as he’s locally known, probably had a point about reality.

The longer-term argument about what’s real and what’s divine will play out in classrooms across the city over a number of years. There are a couple of reflections that might be gleaned from the referendum debate. One is that Berlin, which prides itself on being a “city of tolerance,” is something of a leading-edge experiment in cultural integration in Germany. A once largely ethnically homogenous population of over 80 million people has in recent decades became far more variegated. In addition to a Turkish community of more than 2 million people, the country, and especially Berlin, has taken in immigrants from all parts of a far more mobile European Union since 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down. Not only has there been a sizeable influx of different faiths, particularly Muslims, but of different national cultures, especially from the former Eastern European countries, Russia and Asia. So, cultural integration in Berlin and parts of the rest of Germany is not just an abstract issue (a matter that Canadian readers can easily appreciate).

Further, there’s the broader question of what to teach young people. Germany comes to such problems with the advantage of being a famously “serious” culture, able to address fundamental (and fundamentalist) topics without embarrassment. It also suffers less from the widespread decline of reading than, say, cultures in North America. Finally, it’s the European country that has most had to come to terms with its historical past and, interestingly, it’s done so, in part thanks to writers like Schlink, and its most famous living philosopher, Jurgen Habermas, who has argued on behalf of a democratic public space for several decades. So, Berlin schools at least have a chance to develop an ethics curriculum that might actually work, though its effectiveness won’t be known for some time. It probably won’t heal the wounds of the world, but it might increase the possibility of civility.

In  the meantime, the seasons continue, and as one scriptural book famously noted, there’s a time for referendum voting and there’s a time for waking up to the birds and the bees.

Ah, springtime! It’s when a young man’s or woman’s thoughts turn to love — and in Berlin, also to musings about the twilight of the Gods and secular philosophy. Only in Deutschland, the home of philosophers Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Habermas — and don’t forget Nietszche, who declared the death of divinity.


Berlin, Apr. 27, 2009.


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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